Novak Djokovic: Australian Open vaccine exemption ignites backlash

Image source, ReutersImage caption, Novak Djokovic has been granted permission to defend his Australian Open title

Australians have reacted angrily to news that tennis player Novak Djokovic will play in the Australian Open, after he was exempted from vaccination rules.

All players and staff at the tournament must be vaccinated or have an exemption granted by an expert independent panel.

Organisers said the defending champion had not been given special treatment.

But Australians – some of whom still cannot travel interstate or globally – have criticised officials, politicians and Djokovic himself.

Australian Open chief Craig Tiley said 26 athletes had applied for medical exemptions and "a handful" had been granted, under guidelines set by federal regulators.

"We made it extra difficult for anyone applying for an application to ensure it was the right process and to make sure the medical experts deal with it independently," he told Channel 9 on Wednesday.

The tournament begins in Melbourne on 17 January and Djokovic said on Instagram on Tuesday: "I've spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I'm heading down under with an exemption permission.

"Let's go 2022. I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition."

He has not spoken about his vaccination status, but said publicly last April: "Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn't want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel."

The decision is highly controversial in a country that is seeing tens of thousands of Covid cases for the first time after enduring some of the world's strictest restrictions.

Many have previously accused the government of allowing the rich and famous to do as they please while ordinary people remain separated from sick and dying loved ones.

"I don't care how good a tennis player he is. If he's refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn't be allowed in," A&E doctor Stephen Parnis tweeted on Tuesday.

"If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #COVID19Aus risk to themselves & others. #Vaccination shows respect, Novak."

Australian player Alex de Minaur told a press conference: "I just think it's very interesting. That's all I'm going to say."

Britain's Jamie Murray added: "I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated I wouldn't be getting an exemption. You know, but well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete."

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To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, "Heartless" Queensland bars US couple from seeing dying father

Applications for medical exemptions are being assessed anonymously by two separate panels, with inflammatory cardiac illness or another acute condition listed as valid reasons.

But it is also possible Djokovic has recently tested positive for the virus, which would allow him to defer taking the vaccine.

Victoria state government minister Jaala Pulford acknowledged the decision was "frustrating and upsetting", but also denied that Djokovic had received special treatment.

Both she and Mr Tiley urged Djokovic to give more information to the public.

"It'll certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the conditions in which he's sought an exemption and granted an exemption but ultimately it's up to him," Mr Tiley said.

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